On our 9 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai southbound towards Bangkok, our bus pulled over for an investigation by Thai police. The officers asked a few passengers to show their passports and ID, so Kat and I pulled ours out before they passed by our row. To our surprise, they skipped over us, along with other white/lighter skinned folk. Kat postulated that even though our bus wasn’t crossing any national borders, the officers were probably making sure that there were no stray illegal immigrants crossing borders from Burma or Laos.
One of the many things that stuck with me from a conversation we had with Seema was her perspective on the uniquely American values of freedom and volunteerism. Seema is one of the most worldly and wisest people I know, having cumulatively devoted decades of her life to UNICEF/USAID/World Bank development projects for dozens of countries. From her perspective, we are very lucky to live in a “free” culture – free to speak our minds, free to marry whoever we want (almost there), freedom of faith, free to bear arms, etc. She said she doesn’t really find as many citizens in the world who care about volunteering as much as Americans, because we deeply feel that others should have the same freedoms that we have. Not to say that there aren’t volunteers from other countries, or that altruism is uniquely American, but the concept of freedom is deeply engrained in the foundations of our country.
As the bus ride went on through the night, I began to wonder why people would need to escape Burma in the first place. I am not politically or globally versed in any sense, but I figured it had to be some sort of past intense economic/political/military strife strong enough to split famiilies apart and motivate people to sneak through borders.
I pictured a viral image I saw during the Boston marathon bombings, where Syrian teenagers held up a sign that said something to the degree of “our heart goes out for your loss, but this happens every day in Syria.”
I tried to simulate what would happen if I somehow happened to slander the Thai Royal Family (you get thrown in jail if you get caught talking shit about their monarchy.)
America faces many problems, but we are pretty damn lucky to not have to worry about many of the routine realities in other parts of the world. We have a trillion dollar debt, but at least a great majority of us don’t have to worry about getting blown up while we walk our dogs.
We are largely free to enjoy our lives and choose to do whatever the fuck we want. I feel like the irony is that our freedom gives us too many choices. While the problem lies much higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy and is definitely a good problem to have, I feel like it can be paralyzing and clinically depressing for some. Wondering if another choice would make you happier is a very itchy itch. Having the vast freedom and social mobility to capitalize on my life and make the most of it often leaves me anxiously wondering if I actually am making the most of my life.
But underneath that I feel is another western/American problem of instant and external gratification. Advertising pushes quick fixes and purchases to induce feelings that we often forget (myself included) we can induce by ourselves (Opening Coke = happiness, Old Spice = manliness, shampoo = beauty, money = success). Seeing western-style advertising in Southeast Asia makes me kinda sad – there’s nothing wrong with having an iPhone or beauty products, but I can’t help but feel like ads corrupt a sense of emotional independence. The parts of Bali and Thailand we saw were pretty developed, but there were a lot of smiling kids and families who don’t have much and still maintain their smiles even in the absence of shampoo and Coke and fast cars.